Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's Sunday's home game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 1 p.m. ET):
Mike: Tedy, after nine days on the road in which the Patriots were in Green Bay and then San Diego, they return home and one of the main questions I have this week is if the team has any type of hangover from the long trip. I don't sense it at this point. There's a lot to play for.
Tedy: There are three games to go and the division is on the line. I loved these types of games, the hat-and-T-shirt games. We always said that you hoped to get three sets of hats and T-shirts -- AFC East, American Football Conference and world champions. The division title is the first one you can get, and it's the first time a team can say it officially accomplished something with a season. We always celebrated those championships, but at the same time looked at them as the beginning of potentially something bigger.
Mike: Earlier this week, Tom Brady mentioned that Bill Belichick hadn't brought up the possibility of clinching the AFC East, which is something he would normally do. Every time it's come up with a player in media interviews, it's been downplayed.
Tedy: I think it's OK to talk about it. You want to be division champs, and how can you do that? By winning this game. Downplaying it at this point might be a mistake, because you have young players in there that haven't won the AFC East and you have players that never played in this division before. We always used a potential division title as motivation, so this is what might be happening -- Bill Belichick might just be trying to keep everyone focused on the process of preparing for the game throughout the week, and then boom, he might bring it up the night before the game. When I played, there were times that you'd be waiting to hear something from him the entire week and then it came up Saturday night in a very motivational way. It might even be the type of thing where you're playing a team that had been talking trash about you, and you get to that Saturday night meeting after a good week of practice and Bill Belichick would very cleverly bring it up by saying, "And by the way, fellas, remember this is what this guy said!" So maybe this week, it's a situation where he said to the team: We always talk about wanting to accomplish something, about putting teams behind us; we can do that tomorrow by winning the division.
Mike: Standing in their way is a 7-6 Dolphins team that beat the Patriots 33-20 in Week 1. I'm curious your opinion of them. Are they building something there for the long haul, or are they more of an average team at this point?
Tedy: I think this is a great game for them to answer that question. If you hang your hat on beating the Patriots in September, that doesn't say much. Go ahead and be the best September team in the NFL; you still could be watching the playoffs from your couch. I don't think many fear this Dolphins team. They haven't consistently opened eyes. They could by winning this game, which makes it so meaningful to them. They're still in the playoff hunt and these types of games are what you're playing for at the beginning of the season. In the big-picture view, they can answer it with a win and saying, "We are ready to take that next step." I have doubts they are. I'm just not sure quarterback Ryan Tannehill is ready.
Mike: In our season-opening "Bruschi's Breakdown," one of the things mentioned was how this is just Tannehill's fourth full year as a starting quarterback, going back to college. So there's growth potential there, and I'm curious what you've seen along those lines.
Tedy: The main difference I see at this point is that Tannehill has become more of a runner. That's the best way to utilize him, because I don't see him developing into a drop-back passer that can have the same type of success as the upper-echelon quarterbacks in the league. When I watch him play, I see "Saturday football" with college elements all over this team. Tannehill rarely looks downfield to throw the ball. If he does, he's usually going to his check-down underneath. For them to have success, I think he has to rush for more than 50 yards. I'd sum up my thoughts this way: I respect him more as an athlete than a quarterback. He's shown that type of style can have success, as evidenced by the Dolphins' 7-6 record. It's respectable.
Mike: On the surface, you see Tannehill's high completion percentage in recent weeks and might assume he's come a long way. But this might be a case where the stats don't tell the whole story.
Tedy: It is a rare occurrence that he makes an audible, and he is at his best when the defense is threatened by his running ability. His ball has little variation on touch, velocity or arc. For example, in the Week 8 game against the Jaguars, there is a pop pass from the 5-yard line (fourth quarter, 10:25) as the Dolphins are threatening for a touchdown. The defense has it read well, the linebackers are in good position for the throw, and Tannehill's ball has no arc or trajectory to make it over the defense. There is just no attempt to drop it in to his receiver, which leads him to default to his only throw -- the fastball. The result is that it gets tipped and intercepted. That's the type of play where he should see the defense and recognize they see him. It's not the time to throw it on a line.
Mike: Can that approach sometimes work in his favor?
Tedy: Sure, like last week against Baltimore. His 3-yard touchdown pass to Brian Hartline in the first quarter was a fastball between three defenders. But that can be a dangerous way to live. It looks to me like his overall ability as a football player is better than his overall ability as a quarterback, so you want to let him run if you're the Dolphins. Last week, in the second quarter against the Ravens (6:00), they ran him on a sweep to the left side out of the shotgun. It was a toss crack action, but without the toss. So you see the tight end crack down on the defensive end, the tackle pulls around and Tannehill moves the chains with his legs on third-and-6.
Mike: Thinking about this from a Patriots perspective, it makes sense to think Bill Belichick will focus on making him try to play quarterback by keeping him in that pocket.
Tedy: One of the things you have to watch out for defensively is that the Dolphins often have more than one element to a play. Some plays, for example, they have an option to run or throw off the read-option. It showed up in Week 4 against the Raiders (first quarter, 8:13). Tannehill is in the shotgun, runs the read-option and decides to run to his left. But there is also a wide receiver waiting for him as part of a screen option off a stacked-receiver look. When defensive back Charles Woodson came at Tannehill, it created a two-on-one advantage on the receiver screen, and Tannehill threw it there.
Mike: A few notable changes from the Week 1 matchup between the teams is that running back Knowshon Moreno is on season-ending injured reserve, so Lamar Miller is the top back. Also, offensive lineman Mike Pouncey is back (playing right guard), while they lost left tackle Branden Albert to a season-ending knee injury in early November.
Tedy: The loss of Albert was huge. In my offensive line index, they had peaked as high as No. 3, but after losing Albert, they've dropped down into the teens. But personnel-wise, there are a lot of the same players and things that we talked about in our Week 1 Breakdown. Tight end Charles Clay is a player who is well-respected. He's the type of player Bill Belichick will game plan against, especially in the red zone. Receiver Brian Hartline is that "hustle bunny," and the player who has really emerged for them since that time is rookie receiver Jarvis Landry. Mike Wallace is still there as the downfield threat, but Tannehill's inability to throw accurately to the deep part of the field limits his effectiveness.
Mike: One thing that hurt the Patriots in that Week 1 meeting was a steady diet of inside zone runs.
Tedy: One thing is for sure -- we won't see the same Patriots defense, in terms of the scheme they are playing. There are also quite a few different players too. But you remember, that was the game they were playing Chandler Jones as a 5-technique (3-4 defensive end). I've said this before, but September is still an experimental phase for Bill Belichick, an extension of the preseason in many ways. If players ever got a similar game plan this week, I'm sure someone like Vince Wilfork would raise his hand and say, Can we pause for a second here! That's how we would often do it when I played; we had that input. The point is that the Patriots have evolved from that point and that's often the difference between successful teams and those that are closer to .500. It's having the ability to adapt to what you are. Give a coaching staff iPads filled with plays to look at and determine what worked against you and what didn't, it starts to clear up the picture a bit.
Mike: So much has changed for the Patriots' defense since Week 1, from having cornerback Brandon Browner, to the immediate impact of newcomers Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas and Alan Branch, among others. Cornerback Darrelle Revis said this week that the Patriots are at their best when forcing turnovers, and that's the goal this week. They should have their chances against Tannehill and the Dolphins.
Tedy: If you think back to Week 1, it was a turnover that really helped turn the game around for Miami in the third quarter, when Cameron Wake strip-sacked Tom Brady (9:14). That's a big issue for the Patriots to contend with. You look at what makes Wake so special, and it shows up on that play and also late in the fourth quarter (3:09) with another sack -- he shows torso flexibility and loose hips as he works around right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Mike: It's the same old concerns with Wake, and it's also notable that safety Reshad Jones is back after serving a four-game suspension to open the year. But they'll miss the other safety, Louis Delmas, who is out for the year with a torn ACL.
Tedy: That injury really hurts them. He's a good player for them. As for Jones, he has shown that he will fill hard in the running game. A good example of this came last week against the Ravens (first quarter, 1:41), but I want to see how it looks against 250-pound LeGarrette Blount on Sunday. Overall, this secondary has shown difficulty in dealing with receivers coming off the line of scrimmage and creating rub/pick/traffic situations (e.g., third quarter, 7:06 vs. Ravens, a 14-yard catch on third-and-13).
Mike: Miami's run defense has struggled of late, but the front has given the Patriots some problems in the past when Tom Brady is forced into obvious passing situations.
Tedy: Brady will once again have to do a good job of re-establishing his spot, like he did in the first game on the touchdown throw to Rob Gronkowski. That's when he feels the pressure, moves his feet within the pocket and finds a new clean area to throw from based on the shape of the pocket. Speaking of Gronkowski, that's one of the big differences between Week 1 and this week. Gronkowski was a part-time player at the time, just getting back to it.
Mike: One of the bigger questions I have entering this game is if the Patriots have any type of hangover from a nine-day road trip to Wisconsin and then San Diego. While it's nice for them to be home, will that lead to a false sense of security against a team essentially playing for its season? In the end, I think the Patriots' running game is the key against a Dolphins run defense that ranks 22nd in average yards allowed per game (123.5) and 28th in average yards per carry (4.4). Patriots 34, Dolphins 17
Tedy: The Patriots are peaking at the right time and the Dolphins are leveling off. I expect this team to earn the right to win free hats and T-shirts after the game, saying the first step on their journey to a championship is complete. Patriots 42, Dolphins 10